A “deeply troubling” government report that ministers kept hidden for four years has revealed significant flaws at the heart of the universal credit system and how the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) supports “vulnerable” claimants.
The report, produced in autumn 2019, concludes that the design of universal credit “is inadequate for vulnerable groups” who therefore need extra help from staff through adjustments and specialist support.
It also says the support provided by universal credit is “inconsistently effective” with some claimants “not adequately supported”, while the system for managing individual cases is described as “suboptimal”.
Its release, following a two-year freedom of information battle, comes as Disability News Service (DNS) also reports how a coroner has warned work and pensions secretary Mel Stride that he needs to take action to prevent flaws in the system leading to further deaths, following the suicide of a claimant who became overwhelmed by the universal credit application process (see separate story).
The 2019 report said universal credit’s design was “challenging” for “claimants with vulnerabilities”, such as many disabled people, care leavers and victims of domestic abuse, because it “requires behavioural and lifestyle changes which they are unable to meet”.
The authors of the 24-page report found evidence that not all frontline DWP staff were aware of some “headline policies”, which raised fears that “some claimants are not being paid their full entitlement”.
DWP has been trying to prevent the release of the report by the former Prime Minister’s Implementation Unit (PMIU) since its existence was revealed in October 2021 in universal credit papers secured by campaigner John Slater.
But the information rights tribunal told DWP last month that it must release the How Effective is Support for Vulnerable Universal Credit Claimants? report.
DNS had been seeking a copy of the report since late 2021, alongside Slater and Owen Stevens, from Child Poverty Action Group.
Following the tribunal ruling, DWP has now released the report, and its contents are likely to revive concerns about the impact of universal credit on countless disabled claimants and others in vulnerable situations.
The PMIU report made it clear that the introduction of universal credit (UC) in 2013 – combining six working-age benefits into a single monthly payment through a “digital interface” – had presented “more acute challenges for some vulnerable claimants”.
It concluded: “We know that vulnerabilities can make it harder for claimants to engage with UC across their claimant journey, when making a claim, managing their claim, and managing their finances.”
Slater said that the report’s conclusion that the design of UC was “inadequate for vulnerable groups” was “deeply troubling”.
He told DNS: “The statement that UC by design is challenging for vulnerable claimants is a terrible indictment of the UC team and suggests that vulnerable claimants have been an afterthought.”
He said there was so much in the report “that should have caused the senior leaders of UC and the DWP sleepless nights”.
Although the report said DWP staff can “deliver a more tailored service” for those who need more support with their UC claims and that some of them “go beyond what is expected of them to help”, it also warned that “there is not a consistent understanding of whom this support works for”.
It added: “Knowledge gaps, lack of clarity on expectations, and uncertainty on best practice in handling the most complex cases means some individuals are not adequately supported.”
Slater said: “The fact that [jobcentres] and individual work coaches are doing such good work is fantastic, but it seems to me that they are doing it in spite of the UC and senior DWP leaders rather than because this is the behaviour that has been encouraged and fostered.
“Vulnerable claimants are clearly at the mercy of a postcode lottery in respect of the support they will get from [jobcentres] and individual work coaches.
“This isn’t acceptable.”
The PMIU report also said problems were intensified by delays in accessing mental health treatment, with many jobcentres reporting a “large number of claimants presenting with mental health conditions, for which there is little immediate provision because of long NHS waiting times”.
It added: “Problems with the availability, suitability or timeliness of access to services from third parties reduces the effectiveness of support.”
These issues are almost certain to have worsened since 2019.
The report – written before the pandemic, and the subsequent worldwide economic downturn – also warned that frontline staff were “working close to capacity”, and that jobcentres “may not be resourced to deliver the enhanced support currently available as the caseload increases or in the event of an economic downturn”.
Only this month, DNS reported how conditions at one jobcentre became so stressful from late 2021 onwards that 15 of those in one team of 23 work coaches quit within a 12-month period, with at least eight of them experiencing a significant collapse in their mental health due to a huge, sudden increase in workload.
Even before that increase in workload from late 2021, the PMIU report warned that work coaches only have “up to 15 minutes for meetings with existing claimants”, which was “unlikely to be sufficient for claimants with complex needs who are furthest from the labour market and need the most support”.
Meanwhile, a parliamentary committee heard yesterday (Wednesday) how one of the architects of universal credit admitted to a benefits expert that he and his colleagues were not thinking about “health problems and caring responsibilities at all” when they created universal credit and that they “sort of assumed that this was going to be an operational problem that other people could deal with down the line”.
In an email accompanying the release of the PMIU report to DNS, DWP claimed that UC had “transformed significantly in the support it provides all individuals, especially those who are vulnerable” since 2019, and that it had “made a large number of changes to improve how vulnerable individuals are supported”.
These included creating a new “customer experience directorate”, “re-mobilising” its complex needs team, introducing a new UC team for “understanding, and resolving barriers identified for claimants in accessing the service”, and introducing 38 advanced customer support senior leaders to “underpin our relationships with other organisations who provide support for our customers”.
DWP added: “In line with our well-established design principles, we continue to test and iterate how best to support claimants who are in scope to move to UC.
“It should also be noted that this report was never a statement of government policy, rather it reflected the observations of individuals in the Prime Minister’s Implementation Unit at the time.”
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